Handshake, kiss or hug?

They way we greet each other is different all over the world. There are hugs, kisses, handshakes, nose rubbing and bowing.  My experience doesn’t cover that many cultures, but I have friends from near and far, and we’ve compared stories. There is a social protocol everywhere, and you need to learn and adapt quickly, or you’ll be seen as that awkward foreigner for a very long time.

The Scandinavians are generally quite protective of their personal space. This space is said to be at least 5 inches, to not make anyone feel uncomfortable. You get any closer, and the Swede will get seriously anxious. It doesn’t matter if it’s in a classroom, the subway or a bar. We keep our distance and our voices down, at least until a sufficient amount of alcohol takes care of the inhibitions.

When you first get introduced to someone in Sweden, there is a handshake. It doesn’t matter if you and the other person are of the same or opposite sex. It’s a firm, single-pump handshake while looking the other person straight in the eye and stating your name. Possibly in combination of adequate polite phrase: “Nice to meet you” or “So, you’re Susan’s brother”. After this first introduction, you are now considered ‘Friends’, and friends hug when they meet. Every time. Exception for work mates, perhaps. And your boss. The hug should be short, with just the right amount of closeness. Don’t squeeze too tight or you might send the wrong message. On the other hand, trying to maintain too much distance might convey a feeling of slight disgust. The big, really tight ‘bear hug’ is for close family and for friends that you haven’t seen in some time. Tricky one, this.

Don’t ever, ever try kissing on the cheek! It just doesn’t work. A woman kissing another woman on the cheek might be interpreted as being gay and making a pass. Woman kissing a man’s cheek could give the same message as whispering “What’s your room number?” in his ear.

Now, if you have ever lived in a country where cheek kissing is the custom, you have already learned exactly how many kisses you’re supposed to give/have. This actually varies with countries, and not remembering the correct number in the country you’re in, will cause confusion. Also knowing with which cheek to begin with. Worst case, you end up missing the targeted cheek and leave a kiss on the mouth. I’ve done this, and no, the outcome was very frightening to us both! And if this is not difficult enough to get comfortable with, there are also rules: a) Do not plant a wet kiss on the actual cheek. b) Do not make kissing noises. c) Do not air kiss with a two-inch distance (unless the counterpart is an elderly lady with massive layers of make-up). d) No whispering in ear.

While living in Brazil, I became familiar with the cheek kissing. But after moving back to Sweden, it took just a little too long to unlearn this behaviour, and I ended up kissing my future mother-in-law on the cheek, when we were first introduced. Her reaction could best be compared to that of me holding a machete to her throat. It took her years to overcome this experience and she would watch my every move with utmost suspicion until she finally came to the conclusion that I was harmless. Ironic, as a cheek kiss is supposed to give the totally opposite message.

Now I live in Portugal and trying to adapt to local customs, and while I still struggle to figure out the code for one, two or three kisses, this is my take on how to manage.

For women meeting women, it can be fairly simple. Cheek kissing (usually double) or a hug works for most occasions. Between acquaintances, friends or family you’ll always know at every given time, what is appropriate. Handshake works only for very formal introductions. Easy.

For a woman being introduced to a man, it can be more challenging. You have to know the nationality of the man and the type of relationship you will be in. Figure that one out, and go with your instincts, that’s all I can say. I’m no expert.

For men greeting other men, on the other hand, this can be much more of a dilemma. If you get it wrong the first time, you will have to live with the suspicion of being gay for a very long time. (For a South-European man living in Scandinavia, that might have unexpected repercussions.) Since I’m a woman, I haven’t yet had any reason to learn the finer details. Instead I find there are various levels of handshakes: a) Very professional, as in very firm with one or possibly two pumps, depending on level of optimism felt towards the encounter. b) Handshake in combination with putting hand on the other person’s upper arm. c) Hand-shake (still firm, single-pump) in combination with giving a pat on the shoulder. d) Handshake in combination with a swift semi-hug. e) Good, solid brotherly hug.

For a man meeting women, I think the quick, smooth handshake (not too firm, nor the feared ‘dead fish’) in combination with a cheek kiss (according to circumstance) will do the trick. While exchanging names and pleasantries. Guys, be aware where your left hand goes…

This is no expert advice, as I’m still in the learning process. It’s also not rocket science. You want to make friends in a new place? A smile can take you far, and follow the lead of the natives. Your mistakes will hopefully be forgiven.



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